On Loving Your Neighbor

neighbors-703772

Exodus 20:15, 17

A case could be made that if you do not love your neighbor, you cannot love God. In the New Testament, a lawyer asked Jesus a question. The answer is profound and far-reaching and encompasses every area of life.

“Sir, which is the most important command in the laws of Moses?”

Jesus replied, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second most important is similar: ‘Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.’ All the other commandments and all the demands of the prophets stem from these two laws and are fulfilled if you obey them. Keep only these and you will find that you are obeying all the others.” (Matthew 22:36 – 40 TLB)

That sounds good. Everything Jesus taught sounds good, but how do we actually apply those words? Just what does it mean to “love your neighbor?” If you’re like me, you probably don’t even know your neighbor, beyond his name, and often your neighbor is a complete stranger. Is it possible to love somebody you don’t know? Or more to the point, is it possible to love somebody you don’t like? What if your neighbor is a jerk? The answer to those questions is found back in the Old Testament; it’s found in the Ten Commandments. Specifically, it’s found in Exodus 20:

You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15 NIV)

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:17 NIV)

Loving your neighbor has nothing to do with how you feel about him. Loving your neighbor has everything to do with how you treat him.

Don’t steal, Exodus 20:15

This is the eighth commandment and it’s a unique commandment because the others all relate back to it. For example, if you murder somebody, you are stealing their life. Adultery is the stealing of another’s spouse. When you covet, you want to steal what somebody else has. Stealing justice occurs when you give false testimony.

This commandment is unique for another reason: It is completely open-ended. Other commandments are specific. For example, the commandment to “honor our parents,” is specific; nobody else is mentioned, only our parents. And only married people can commit adultery. When God says, “Don’t steal,” He means we can’t steal anything; we can’t take anything that belongs to another person. There is no qualifying statement given. The commandment is absolute.

This means three things.

We are not permitted to steal another human being. In other words, God absolutely forbids kidnapping. Related to this is stealing somebody else’s freedom and making them a slave. Critics of the Bible love to point out that the Bible, in both Testaments, condones slavery. This isn’t the case. What the Bible refers to often is something called “Indentured Servitude.” This refers to the selling of one’s self to another person for specific period of time in order to work off a debt. “Indentured servitude” has nothing to do with kidnapping free people and selling them into slavery. In fact, slavery of that kind is expressly forbidden by the eighth commandment.

The sanctity of personal property. It has been demonstrated time and time again that private property rights, beginning with owning land, is indispensable to building a free, orderly, and decent society. Totalitarian societies have no individual property rights; the state owns everything.

In medieval societies, a few wealthy landowners owned all the land and the rest of the people worked that land, not for their enrichment, but for the enrichment of the owners. In Europe of the 19th century, socialists argued for taking away private property and giving it to “the people.” Communism ensued, and so did widespread theft of property leading to theft of freedom and finally theft of life. Essential to freedom is the right to own private property. God understood that and that’s why the eighth commands expressly forbids stealing.

The eighth commandment also addresses the many “non-material” things people own. For example, a person’s reputation and dignity. Or things like their trust and their intellectual property.

You can steal a person’s reputation – their good name – through libel, slander, and gossip. This is particularly nefarious form of theft because unlike theft of money, once a person’s good name has been stolen, it can almost never be restored.

You rob a person of their dignity when you humiliate them. The worst kind of humiliation occurs when a person is humiliated in public, and humiliation can do permanent damage to a person’s self-esteem.

Stealing a person’s trust happens when you deceive them or when you trick them. A good example of this when a person is tricked into buying something, like a house, they can’t afford. Or when a used car salesman neglects to tell his prospect that the car he’s looking at needs some major mechanical work done.

People who, for example, illegally copy software or download movies and music without paying for them are stealing another person’s intellectual property.

So, you can see how far-reaching and all encompassing this eighth commandment really is. It applies to every single aspect of your life and the life of your neighbor. Think about that next time you’re tempted to gossip just a little or when you try to sell your old jalopy.

Do not covet, Exodus 20:17

The final four commandments all address how people treat other people. People can’t murder other people. People can’t cheat on their spouses. Stealing anything is forbidden. Lying, or perjury, is a no-no. The final commandment, number 10, forbids all the above. Coveting anything that does not belong to you is absolutely forbidden.

There is something quite unique about this commandment which ties it to Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament. Commandment number ten, unlike the other nine which legislate behavior, legislates thought. Here’s how Jesus worded it:

The laws of Moses said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say: Anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27 TLB)

Jesus is talking about coveting, and so is the tenth commandment. This is significant because of the over 600 laws throughout the Torah, the tenth commandment is the only law that legislates how believers are to think. The reason may not be readily apparent, but coveting – a thought – often leads to acts of evil. Coveting leads a person to breaking the preceding four commandments. This was something Jesus well understood but the Pharisees and teachers of the law apparently forgot.

Why do people murder, commit adultery, steal, and lie? All of those sins begin as a thought; they begin when a person begins to covet something or someone he doesn’t have. Coveting is such a serious sin, it is the only thought in the entire Bible that is prohibited; in the Old Testament under the Ten Commandments and in the teachings of Jesus in the New.

To “covet” is more than just “wanting” or “desiring.” The Hebrew verb in behind our English word, “covet,” is a strong one. It means “to want to the point of seeking to take away and own something that belongs to another person.” In other words, coveting something involves scheming a way to obtain something you want through illegal or immoral means. It is far more than envying or lusting, two things that are problematic in their own right but are not prohibited in the Ten Commandments, although they are issues Jesus deals with in His teaching. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, our Lord on several occasions framed His teachings like this: “The Law of Moses says this, but I say something more.” In other words, Jesus takes the Law as only a “starting point” for righteous behavior. A true, devoted follower of God will go beyond what the Law requires. Jesus understood that things like envying and lust, though not dealt with specifically in the Law, are self-destructive behavior that almost always lead to coveting. But it is coveting, not envying or lust, that ends in murder, stealing, lying and adultery.

It is not sinful to look at your neighbor’s house or car and want a house or a car like his. In fact, that kind “envying” can lead to very productive behavior. You’ll work harder and save your money so you can better your situation and maybe own a home or car like your neighbor has. That’s not necessarily wrong (although it can be) and that’s not coveting. The tenth commandment doesn’t prohibit noticing what your neighbor has or even discouraging you from wanting what he has. What it does prohibit is finding an illegal and immoral way to get HIS.

The Ten Commandments as they were originally given represented God’s law for an orderly, free, and decent society. The religious laws would come later. In an orderly, free, and decent society, the Ten Commandments always work, they never fail. And the tenth commandment tells us that we are not allowed to covet what belongs to our neighbor; that we must consider his private property as sacrosanct.

When Jesus spoke about loving your neighbor, He didn’t have in mind you serenading him with love songs and sending him roses all the time. Respecting his person and his property go a long way in expressing the kind of love Jesus has in mind.

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